The NHL season is finally here, and that also means that NCAA hockey is right around the corner. Each year a number of U.S. College Hockey alums perform at the highest level in the NHL.
While some take the major junior route, some of the NHL's finest chose to spend their later teens and early 20s in the dorms and classrooms. And yes, a little hockey as well. Though goal horns and catchy tunes awaited in the NHL, at one time these student athletes played in front a student section and heard fight songs and school bands. It was a time to celebrate the student athlete.
This list will examine the current top 25 NHL players, whose first glory days were at the NCAA level. This list is debatable, and there are many NCAA players at the end of their NHL careers who are not considered the best of the best today.
With that in mind, let's see where it began for these NHL stars.
Long before Olympic Gold, a Conn Smythe Trophy and ultimately the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks' Jonanthan Toews played two seasons at the University of North Dakota.
After playing his prep hockey at Shattuck St. Mary's in Minnesota, Toews enrolled as a freshman at UND in the fall of 2005. In two seasons with the Fighting Sioux, he registered 40 goals and 45 assists in 76 games.
Clearly one of the best in the NHL, does Toews have a Hart Trophy or another cup or two in his future?
Ryan Miller dominated the goal crease in the college hockey ranks for three years, beginning in the 1999-2000 season. During that time, Miller posted an outstanding 1.48 GAA and won the Hobey Baker Award in 2001.
Playing hockey at Michigan State is almost a birthright in the Miller family. Ryan's cousins Kip, Kevin and Kelly Miller all played for the Spartans in the 80s and early 90s. Kip Miller won the Hobey Baker Award in 1990 with 101 points.
Ryan Miller, now a star with the Sabres, got his first taste of glory at a university he was born to attend.
Zach Parise paved the way for Jonathan Toews by attending Shattuck St. Mary's and ultimately the University of North Dakota.
Parise was a dominant force for UND, scoring 116 points in 76 games over two seasons. After being drafted 17th overall by the New Jersey Devils, Parise played one more year for the Sioux in 2003-2004 and was a Hobey Baker finalist.
Riddled by injury last season, hockey fans are looking forward to seeing Parise on a more regular basis with the Devils in 2011-2012.
The 2011 Con Smythe winner and Stanley Cup Champion came a long way and worked hard to get where his is now.
Tim Thomas played four years for the University of Vermont and won 26 games for the Catamounts in 95-96. He and teammate Martin St. Louis led Vermont to a Frozen Four appearance that season.
Thomas finished his career at Vermont as a senior in 1997, having been a four year starter. He left with 81 wins in 140 appearances.
After 14 years of paying dues in the minors and now established as the best goaltender in the NHL, Tim Thomas finally reached heights he knew he was capable of.
Paul Stastny is yet another player with hockey in his blood. Unlike his father Peter, Paul grew up playing in North America and enrolled at the University of Denver in the fall of 2003.
Paul would play three years for the Pioneers, registering 143 points, and was a critical player for Denver as it won back-to-back NCAA Championships in 2004 and 2005.
Like his father before him, Stastny is among the NHL elite and currently one of the best centers in the game.
A Norris Trophy winner, Duncan Keith played one full season for the Michigan State Spartans in 2001-2002. He played in 41 games and notched 15 points.
The following season, Keith would play 15 games for the Spartans before jumping to the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
Easily one of the best defenseman in the game, a long-term college career wasn't in the cards for Keith. It's pretty clear now that he made the right decision.
Dany Heatley arrived at the University of Wisconsin with enormous expectations in the fall of 1999, and he delivered. Heatley would play 77 games over two seasons and registered 113 points.
Two years was all Heatley needed to catapult him to the next level. He quickly established himself in the 2001-2002 season, scoring 62 points as a rookie with the Atlanta Thrashers.
Still without a Stanley Cup and now with his fourth team, Heatley has had somewhat of a turbulent ride in the NHL. The Minnesota Wild are hopeful Heatley will a big factor in their success this season.
The reigning Selke Trophy winner and Livonia, Michigan native played one year of college hockey. Following two years with the U.S. Development Program, Ryan Kessler attended the Ohio State University in 2002-2003.
Kessler scored 31 points in his only year in NCAA hockey and quickly turned pro with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.
One of the best two-way centers in the world, Kessler's best years are still ahead of him.
Brian Gionta was one of the best college hockey players of all time. Because of his size and the big, slow state of the NHL at the time, many thought Gionta would never make it at the next level. How wrong they were.
Three times in a four-year career, Gionta was a Hobey Baker Finalist. In his fantastic, four-year college career, Gionta scored 123 goals and finished with 232 points.
In his senior year he led the Eagles to the 2001 NCAA championship.
Last season, Gionta was the first-ever American born player to be elected captain of the Montreal Canadiens.
Tim Thomas' classmate at the university of Vermont was a French-Canadian scoring standout named Martin St. Louis.
Much tinier (if you can imagine that) back then, St. Louis and childhood friend Eric Perrin became the most lethal one-two punch in college hockey.
St. Louis registered a colossal 267 points in four years as a Burlington, Vermont resident before turning pro in 1997.
St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning will be in pursuit of their second Stanley Cup as the season begins later this week.
Current Philadelphia Flyer Matt Carle won the Hobey Baker Award in 2006. He and teammate Paul Stastny were part of Denver's back to back title runs in 2004 and 2005.
Another U.S. Development product, Carle had 53 points as a senior at Denver in 2006 before his first season with the San Jose Sharks.
Carle is now a significant player for the Flyers, and he will be counted on heavily if the the Fly-boys are to return to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Phil Kessel made a lot of news in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin when he elected not to become a Badger and instead attended the University of Minnesota.
Kessel would only play one year in a Gopher uniform before declaring himself NHL ready. Kessel had 51 points in 2005-2006 for Minnesota before being drafted No. 5 overall by the Boston Bruins.
A brief college career for Kessel, but he certainly made some noise in the NCAA ranks before heading to the NHL.
He will no doubt produce in Toronto, but time will tell if the Leafs will eventually become a winner.
Brooks Orpik has been a model of consistency for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though originally from the San Francisco area, Orpik played his prep hockey at Thayer Academy in Massachusetts before spending three years at Boston College.
As an Eagle, Orpik was as solid as always. Though not a huge scorer, he played every game in the 2000-2001 season when Boston College won the NCAA Championship.
Today, Orpik is a model stay-at-home defenseman in an era when these players are critical. Though not flashy, the value of a player like Orpik cannot be underestimated. Already with a cup to his credit, he continues to do the job well in the NHL.
Jack Johnson was already the third overall pick in the 2005 draft before heading to Ann Arbor. At the University of Michigan, Johnson continued to excel. In his 2006-2007 sophomore season, Johnson recorded 39 points in 36 games and was the cornerstone of the Wolverines' power play.
Last season with the Los Angeles Kings, Johnson had his finest season as a pro, with 42 points in 82 games.
With a revamped roster, Johnson will be in a position to be a part of something special if the Kings can make a Cup run in 2011-2012.
Yes, believe it or not, that is Dan Boyle.
Boyle was a weapon for Miami of Ohio and in his junior season mustered 54 points in 40 games. He turned pro after his senior 1997-98 season. He began his professional career with the Cincinnati Cyclones and broke into the NHL with the Florida Panthers in 1998-99.
Boyle is a tremendously valuable asset to the San Jose Sharks. After two straight exits from the conference finals, is this the year the Sharks finally break through?
Kevin Bieksa was a little-known player when he joined the Falcons of Bowling Green State in 2000. A four-year letterman, Bieksa continued to improve and was a consistent contributor on the blue line.
It took a while for Bieksa to establish himself as one of the premier defenseman in the game. He is another player that you do not see on the score sheet often but is of tremendous value to the Vancouver Canucks.
Though he is a player you love to hate, anybody would want Kevin Bieksa on his or her squad. Does he deserve to make this list? Yes, he does.
Thomas Vanek was outstanding for the Minnesota Golden Gophers when they won their second straight NCAA Championship in 2003.
Over two years, Vanek scored 113 points in 83 games and was clearly ready to make an impact in the NHL. After a 42-goal season for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2004-2005, Vanek joined the Buffalo Sabres and has never looked back.
Coming off his best season with 74 points, Vanek needs to be a factor in both ends of the ice for the Sabres to succeed this season.
Another member of the Buffalo Sabres, Drew Stafford has developed into one of the better two-way players in the NHL.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stafford attended the University of North Dakota, where he starred for three seasons. Stafford finished his college career after the 2005-2006 season with 115 points in 118 games.
Stafford is coming off a 31-goal season in which he only appeared in 62 games. If he can continue that pace, the Sabres will be a force to be reckoned with in the East.
Ryan Suter was another young player that merely dabbled in college hockey. He was quite effective in his one year at the University of Wisconsin in 2003-2004, with 19 points in 39 games.
After a a year with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL, Suter has been an an NHL regular with the Nashville Predators since the 2005-2006 season.
Still only 26, Suter and Shea Weber anchor the defensive corps for the Preds and are hungry to make a dent in the NHL Central in 2011-2012.
Erik Cole played three seasons at Clarkson University and had his finest campaign as a sophomore in 1998-99 with 42 points in 36 games.
Cole played his first season with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2001-02 and has been with them ever since. A member of their 2006 Stanley Cup Championship team, Cole is a leader and a very strong hockey player at both ends of the ice.
Due to injuries and recent struggles, many wrote Cole off and thought his career all but over. Cole responded with a solid 26-goal season in 2010-11 and proved that he can still play the game at a top level.
The 2006 Wisconsin Hockey team won the NCAA Championship, and its roster boasted a handful of future NHL players. Among those was Joe Pavelski, who is now a vital piece of the San Jose Sharks.
Pavelski attended Wisconsin for two years before pursuing his pro career. As a sophomore in 2005-2006, the Stevens Point native led the Badgers in scoring with 56 points in 43 games.
With a career-high 66 points in 2010-11, The Sharks hope Pavelski will continue to produce at that level as they begin their quest for the cup.
The undrafted Kris Kunitz was a four-year standout at Ferris State University. Kunitz was a Hobey Baker Finalist in 2002-03 and scored a career high 35 goals.
Kunitz has become a fine player, being a two-time cup winner with the Anaheim Ducks (2007) and Pittsburgh Penguins (2009).
Kunitz potted 23 goals last season and at 32, he is still a quality NHL player.
Minneapohttp://bleacherreport.com/slideshow/877625/newlis' David Backes produced mightily in his home state during his college years. For three years Backes played at Minnesota State in Mankato, and put up numbers on a consistent basis. For the Mavericks, Backes had 119 points, and averaged over a point per game.
Backes was superb on a sub par St. Louis Blues team last year. He netted 31 goals and looks to have a very bright future in the NHL.
Yet another player coached under Red Berenson, Mike Cammalleri is a key part of the attack for the Montreal Canadiens.
With 130 points in his three years with the University of Michigan, Cammalleri was ready to make the leap to pro hockey.
Without question, Cammalleri is one of the game's finest; if the Canadiens are going to pose any sort of threat in the East this season, Cammalleri is going to need to be on the top of his game.
Patrick Sharp was a part of the University of Vermont Hockey team druing some lean years. For two years Sharp played well at Gutterson Ice Rink (pictured), and then left after his sophomore year in 2002 after scoring 26 points in 31 games.
Sharp sweated it out in the AHL and with Philadelphia before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks prior to the 2005-06 season.
After his best season in 2010-11, in which he had 34 goals and 71 points, Sharp is at the peak of his career and continues to be one of the better situational players in the NHL.
There are a number of players in the NHL that came from the college ranks that are not included in the top 25. Below are some other notables. Let the debating begin!
James Van Riemsdyk - University of New Hampshire
Jimmy Howard - University of Maine
R.J Umberger - Ohio State University
Paul Martin - University of Minnesota
Erik Johnson - University of Minnesota
Brian Rolston - Lake Superior State University
Andy McDonald - Colgate University
Justin Abdelkader - Michigan State University
T.J. Oshie - University of North Dakota
Jordan Leopold - University of Minnesota
Brendan Morrison - University of Michigan
Curtis Glencross - University of Alaska Anchorage
Dustin Penner - University of Maine
Tom Poti - Boston University
Patrick Eaves - Boston College